Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Analyzing Technique

Some of the greatest lessons I received in my martial arts training were mere sentences spoken to me. All the hard training, the extensive drills, the constant repetition of techniques, the intense sparring, and all the other physical aspects involved in improving your martial arts skills require an innate understanding of why you are doing it if you really want to take it to the next level.

In May of 1976, while at the Authentic Karate Club, I met Sifu Duncan Leung. This Wing Chun instructor, who learned personally from Yip Man, helped change my life for the better. Duncan Leung knows fighting. I’m not talking about sparring. I’m talking about real fighting. But that is another story altogether.

One of the most memorable things he ever said to me occurred one hot day in a corner of the Authentic Karate Club one Saturday when he was teaching Wing Chun there. We were practicing some timing drills. I was dominating my partners, over-powering them with my superior size and strength. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. Sifu Leung was paying close attention to me.

When we finished the drill, he moved closer to me and said, “You are a big guy.” I nodded.

He continued, “You are strong and you can beat these guys easy because you over-power them.” I smiled in agreement.

Then he dropped the bomb on me. “What are you going to do, when you face a guy who is bigger and stronger than you, and faster too?”

I had never considered the possibility. All I was concerned with was beating my partners in class.

He continued, “You should concentrate on learning the technique the right way. You are already strong. If you do the technique right, your natural strength will help you anyway.”

It was my epiphany moment. Suddenly I understood the training. Suddenly I knew how to utilize my training. As a matter of fact, from then on, I immersed myself into analyzing the technical aspects of each technique and discovering the science within the art. From that moment on, I trained as if I were the frailest, weakest person in the class instead of the biggest and strongest. I convinced myself that my very survival depended on me learning the technique properly, because I could not afford to get hit, and each strike I gave, had to count.

I wasn’t afraid of getting hit. It was just that I imagined I was made of fine, expensive China, so I could not afford to get hit unnecessarily. I was protecting my valuable property.

Applying this theory in real life fights has saved my life numerous times and kept me from getting hit. These ancient techniques have usually stood the test of time, because when applied properly, they work. Your art will be better when you embrace the science behind it so you can properly apply the techniques.

Sifu Duncan Leung taught me many other things over the years, which helped me understand martial arts, and made me more effective in real life situations, but this one simple thing was the foundation for a much broader understanding of martial arts.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Substance Over Style

Karate was designed to kill. One blow--one kill. Some say, one blow--one victory, and that is alright, but it was designed to kill.

Of course, we are civilized people (mostly), and we can’t just go around fighting death matches. We have tournaments, and sparring with rules, to keep people from meeting a painful death,due to deadly strikes from hands and feet, but there should be evidence, by the technique, that severe, if not deadly, damage could have been done, when a technique was executed properly (pun intended).

I have witnessed the decline in such techniques over the years. There is more interest in style than in substance. Go to a tournament these days, and any motion in the direction of the opponent is considered for a point. It often doesn’t matter if the technique had focus, power, balance, or even proper technique. It is closer to a game of tag than to a fight.

In the old days of the Authentic Karate Club, winning trophies in a tournament was a by-product of entering. The purpose for competing in the tournament was to “show the people good technique.” The hardest battles, the place where you practiced and perfected your technique, was in the dojang (dojo, school).

Some basic techniques appear simple, but may take years to master. There is a huge difference in knowing a move, form, or stance, and mastering them.

Take for example, a basic front-forward stance. Any white belt can do it--few black belts have even mastered it. In a good front-forward stance, I should not be able to push you out of it any kind of way, nor should you have to push back to keep me from pushing you out of balance. A reverse punch delivered from that front-forward stance should be devastating, with the power originating, not from the fist, arm, shoulder, or even torso, but from the very earth itself.

The back heel should be rooted into the ground (even if only imagined) a couple of inches, so the punch has a solid brace from which to emanate. The knee should be over the big toe so that a push to the shin of the forward leg, won’t send it back where the knee can be broken or disjointed, or leg be easily susceptible to a sweep. The foot of the front foot should be pointing straight ahead, while the back foot should be no more than a 45 degree angle, almost as if you were about to push a car up a hill. If your stance is rooted properly, you can generate more power and allow your upper body to be relaxed and mobile. There is much more to this stance, but it would take a bit more to explain in detail, and some things are better shown than told.

I have seldom seen a reverse punch even properly thrown in a tournament. Here too, any white belt can do it, but few black belts even master it. Too many people are interested in the flash and stylistic showing, but not the substance of the techniques, so the proper technique is being lost as it is watered down. Properly executed technique is beautiful and artistic on its own.

Speed is no good if it has no power or focus to it. Flash is no good without substance--except maybe in tournaments were practitioners are deluding themselves in thinking they are mastering a deadly art because they have a trophy in their hand. Trophies won’t help you in a real fight where your life is on the line (unless you are using it as a weapon). Practice the science of the art to master the technique and understand the mental process which accompanies the physical performance.

The same goes with forms (kata, poomse). You should analyze and master each and every movement, and understand the purpose of all the motions and positions, then practice them as if you are using them in an actual fight. They are the encyclopedia of the art.

There should be an atmosphere of danger and destruction, as well as an aesthetic grace when you perform your forms. There should be no doubt, even to the casual observer, that what you are doing is practicing a dangerous and deadly art and you can be quite effective with it.